Duke basketball rim protection is biggest question mark entering season

Duke basketball forward Kyle Filipowski (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Duke basketball forward Kyle Filipowski (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Duke basketball team is looking to rely on veterans for rim protection. 

A few months ago, the transfer portal churned into a frenzy, functioning as a de facto free agency period for college basketball. As star players switched teams, graduate transfers sought to lengthen their careers and mid-major standouts found roles with bigger programs. The Duke basketball program, for its part, largely abstained.

However, many of the Blue Devil faithful made clear their desire to import an elite shot-blocker to the current roster.

Indiana bound Kel’el Ware, Utah Valley 7-footer Aziz Bandaogo, and an assortment of other players fitting the “rim protector” label were openly coveted by Duke fans on message boards and social media.

Yes, there were some more dynamic players, such as Dayton’s DaRon Holmes, that drew Blue Devil nation’s attention along the way, but the priority for many fans was quite clear; Find a new shot blocker in the mold of Dereck Lively or Mark Williams.

This was without question an understandable desire, but there were two problems with it.

First, that it was all but impossible to fulfill.

Duke may have just enjoyed two of its best ever shot blockers in back-to-back years, but Lively’s and Williams’ don’t come around all that often and there might not be a shot blocker on their level anywhere in college basketball this season.

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The second problem was not understanding there is a way to defend the paint and rim without an elite shot blocker.

Lively and Williams spoiled the Duke faithful. They were elite instinctive shot blockers with the defensive ability to lock down skilled offensive opponents one-on-one and help off interior passes simultaneously.

This kind of force will undoubtedly be missed by the Blue Devils this season and, the fact of the matter, is that there are ways to defend the post without an all-world individual rim protector.

If there weren’t, Duke would have had a much more difficult time between the graduation of Shelden Williams in 2006 and Mark Williams’ arrival in 2020.

The job will get harder without a Dereck Lively or Mark Williams under the rim, but let’s look at three ways in which the Blue Devils can still make life difficult for opposing big men.

Duke basketball defensive options entering season

Duke’s roster doesn’t have anyone on it who can do what Dereck Lively did to Armando Bacot in Cameron Indoor Stadium or what Mark Williams did to Drew Timme on a neutral court two years ago.

However, this shouldn’t lead anyone to assume these Blue Devils don’t boast capable one-on-one post defenders, though.

Christian Reeves may spend most of his time on the bench this season, but he’s an enormous center who has shown good defensive instincts in small samples.

Sean Stewart is slightly undersized for the five position but arrives on campus with a strong defensive reputation and the motor and athleticism to frustrate opponents. He may even become this team’s best shot blocker in time.

But, it’s Kyle Filipowski who will be relied upon the most.

Filipowski was underrated as a defender while playing next to Lively but the bottom line is that he’s a legitimate 7-footer who moves his feet, keeps his head up, and handles contact as well as anyone in the country.

He won’t put up the raw shot-blocking numbers of Lively or Williams but look for Flip to have some very strong games defending the rim.

When there’s a Dereck Lively or Mark Williams manning the paint, it’s almost easy to forget the fact that a defensive scheme can go a long way toward stopping an opposing big man.

To this end, one strategy the 2023-24 Blue Devils may employ is that of keeping the ball out of the low post to begin with, specifically, pressing opposing guards well above the key by either dragging front-court players closer to the free-throw line or else leaving them isolated away from the action.

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This is not to say Duke will implement full-time half-court pressure. There are certain lineups for which this is likely to be an effective strategy regardless of who’s in at center for the Blue Devils.

The ideal case might be a pressure-oriented lineup featuring Tyrese Proctor, Caleb Foster, Jaylen Blakes, and Mark Mitchell. Those four players are certainly capable of forcing offenses to start high, and by extension making post entry more difficult.

Truth be told though, any three-guard lineup with Mitchell or Stewart at the four will at least have the ability to try this approach.

With its deep guard rotation and its potential to roll out lineups in which all five players can shoot, the Duke basketball team will also be able to force opposing big men off the floor at times.

A three-guard lineup, combined with Mitchell, Stewart, and the deceptively mobile Filipowski at the five, can push the pace and make it hard for even the best opposing centers to keep up. A lineup of three guards, Mitchell, and Stewart can win a track meet against any five guys in the country.

Likewise, if Duke were to counter a dominant big man with a shooting-oriented lineup featuring any three of Jeremy Roach, Proctor, Jared McCain, and Jaden Schutt alongside TJ Power and Kyle Filipowski, the dominant big man would either have to extend to the perimeter on defense or surrender open looks. This is more or less how so many otherwise decent college big men consistently get played off the court in the NBA.

These are approaches some would have liked to see more in Duke’s early season loss to Purdue last season — though Zach Edey was not the only Boilermaker giving the Blue Devils fits in that game.

Regardless, this season’s Blue Devils are better equipped to play these kinds of lineups –– and they may even try it early with Arizona and 7-foot, 260-pound Oumar Ballo coming to Durham.

The bottom line is that Duke basketball fans have been spoiled in recent seasons by two shot-blocking savants who rank among the program’s best ever post defenders.

More often than not, that kind of guy simply won’t be patrolling the paint –– for Duke or anyone else.

As valuable as Mark Williams and Dereck Lively were, they should not lead anyone to believe that there’s only one way to stop good centers. Jon Scheyer will have plenty of tricks up his sleeve when the Blue Devils face tough big men.

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